Central Europe in Transition: A Talk with Jan Kavan

Politicians’ lives can be exciting. Jan Kavan, a former dissident, was accused, then cleared of spying, became foreign and deputy prime minister of the Czech Republic, then president of the UN General Assembly.

By Metta Spencer (interviewer)

METTA SPENCER: It must be twenty years since I saw you last.

JAN KAVAN: Yes, at least.

SPENCER: So I’d like to catch up. You’ve had an astounding career, with all its ups and downs. When we met last you were in the lustration fight to clear your name of accusations of collaborating with the Communist regime. But soon you were the foreign minister of the Czech Republic and then the president of the UN General Assembly.

KAVAN: Yes, from September 2002 to 2003.

SPENCER: What kinds of political issues did you handle during that time?

KAVAN: The lustration problem lasted five years. I won in the appeal court in January 1996. Then in November of that year I was elected to the senate. In June of 1998 a Social Democratic government was elected and I became foreign minister. The following year, in addition to being foreign minister, I became deputy prime minister, responsible for foreign and security policies.

SPENCER: Who was the prime minister at the time?

KAVAN: Milos Zeman was prime minister throughout the four years of the minority Social Democratic government. He named me as foreign minister in June 1998 and in 1999 as deputy prime minister. One of the most controversial issues was the “Czech-Greek Peace Initiative” of 1999. My Greek colleague, then-Foreign Minister George Papandreou (until recently prime minister of Greece) and I negotiated a text—the “Czech-Greece Peace Agreement”—in which we appealed to NATO member countries. It was a discussion paper but included proposals to end the bombardment of Yugoslavia, achieve a ceasefire, and start cooperation in the Balkan area. In June ’99, the Ten-Point Declaration led to the ceasefire. If you compare our text to it, I would say the similarity is around 80 percent, including our brief proposal for cooperation, which eventually resulted in the stability pact for the Balkan countries. It was a successful initiative and was perceived as such in Greece. However, the majority of the Czech right-wing media thought it was undermining NATO’s attempt to bomb the former Yugoslavia into submission. Some top US representatives, including then-Secretary of State Madeline Albright, also criticized it, but I did get support from foreign ministers of other NATO countries, such as Norway.

I was also involved when the Czech Republic was on the UN Human Rights Council shortly after the United States left it. We were asked to sponsor a resolution critical of the human rights record of Cuba.

SPENCER: The United States proposed that?

KAVAN: Yes, but they couldn’t put it forward because they were no longer members of the council. We slightly revised the text. We were critical of the human rights record of the Cuban government. On the other hand, we opposed blanket sanctions, which we argued harmed the people, not the politicians responsible for violations of human rights. I got support from the European Union at that time, over which Sweden presided. The Swedish foreign minister was my friend Anna Lindh, who was later assassinated. She strongly supported the call for very narrow, “smart” sanctions aimed at persons responsible for violations of human rights, but not blanket sanctions of the type the US had been implementing. But again, some US representatives and the Czech right-wing media didn’t like it.

SPENCER: As foreign minister, didn’t you negotiate the Czech accession to the European Union?

KAVAN: Yes, under my chairmanship we concluded 29 of the 31 chapters necessary to get the accession treaty. This was a major task. The Austrian government was critical of the Czech nuclear power station built in southern Bohemia, not far from the Austrian border. At one point they gave us an impossible choice: either close the power station or they would veto our accession to the European Union. (Or veto the energy chapter, which amounted to the same thing.) Our prime minister then asked me to seek a solution that would let the nuclear power station continue and prevent the Austrian veto. It succeeded. We got into the Union and established various warning signals, including a hotline by which the Austrians would be informed of all developments at the power station.

Then, in March 1999, as foreign minister I signed the accession of the Czech Republic to NATO.

SPENCER: (Laughs) I bet that wasn’t your proudest accomplishment.

KAVAN: I signed it together with my Hungarian and Polish colleagues. The Polish foreign minister, Mr. Geremek, was a friend of mine from dissident times. We signed it in the Truman Library in Missouri. I was much more pleased by our accession to European Union than to NATO because I believe the EU also guarantees a high degree of security for its members. However, the government that empowered me to sign it was in favor. You have to understand that in this part of the world, given our history and bitter experience with the Warsaw Pact troops, which invaded this country in 1968, the accession to NATO did have significant support. At that time I wanted a kind of Norwegian status—a guarantee that if we joined NATO we would not have foreign nuclear weapons stationed on our territory. I failed on that. Our relation with NATO is not as controversial as one would perceive.

SPENCER: My impression is that it is totally uncontroversial in the Czech Republic. I remember going to a conference in Prague before the Czechs entered NATO. I was astonished at the enthusiasm for it by those who, shortly before, had been my good peacenik friends. They were clamoring to get into NATO. The desire seemed unanimous.

KAVAN: It’s difficult to quantify. Unlike the EU, where we had a referendum and the majority of people voted for accession, we did not have a referendum on NATO, so I can only go by opinion polls, which indicated an overwhelming majority of citizens in favor of NATO, which was perceived as a guarantee of our security and a symbol of membership in the European community and of leaving the former Soviet bloc.

However, certain decisions that followed were controversial—like the 1999 bombardment of former Yugoslavia. The decision was taken exactly seven days after we joined. That put us in a difficult situation, since the majority of citizens favored joining NATO but opposed bombing Yugoslavia. Czechs remember the Serbs supporting us in various times of crisis—1918, 1938, 1968, etc. The prime minister asked me, within days after the NATO operation started, to negotiate the Czech-Greek Peace Initiative. Equally, in March 2003 when NATO discussed the proposal to invade Iraq, there was a major disagreement within NATO, which led to the emergence of the Coalition of the Willing. The Czech Republic couldn’t make up its collective mind. I was no longer foreign minister then but president of the United Nations General Assembly and, together with Secretary General Kofi Annan, publicly opposed the invasion in the UN and elsewhere. The Czech president also opposed the invasion.

SPENCER: The president at that time was—?

KAVAN: Vaclav Klaus.

SPENCER: I’m surprised that he opposed it.

KAVAN: No, no—on foreign policy issues Klaus usually opposed military solutions. He opposed the bombardment of former Yugoslavia. He opposed the unilateral declaration of independence of Kosovo. He did not support the general condemnation of Russia during the war with Georgia. I disagree with many of his views on European Union but one must be fair.

SPENCER: Really. I had the idea he was the Margaret Thatcher of the East.

KAVAN: He was very proud to declare himself many years ago to be the last Thatcherite on the continent of Europe. He was comparing his and Maggie’s views on the European Union. But on these issues, no. My successor as foreign minister, Mr. Cyril Svoboda, supported the Coalition of the Willing and the invasion of Iraq, while the prime minister at the time was wavering between those positions, saying he supports NATO, but there was no unanimous decision by NATO. He didn’t really oppose the invasion but did not place the Czech Republic among the Coalition of the Willing. So the Czech Republic did not follow the most aggressive forces within NATO. On the other hand, the Czech Republic is participating in NATO’s Afghanistan operations. So you have to evaluate it action by action. People are no longer as enthusiastic about NATO as in 1999, but if it were put to a referendum, NATO would still get majority support as a security organization.

SPENCER: What about the Ballistic Missile Defence project?

KAVAN: In consistent opinion polls, a majority of the country—60 or 65 percent—opposed the bilateral project agreed between then-President Bush and the Czech government to install a radar station on the Czech territory as part of a project with US missiles being installed in Poland. But some argued that if it were a collective decision by all—truly all—NATO member countries, sharing the decision-making and financial burden, then there would not have been the overwhelming, nation-wide protests that we experienced at the time. When President Obama cancelled that project, it was welcomed by a majority of the population and the opposition—though not by the Czech government.

SPENCER: Is it really dead?

KAVAN: That particular project is dead. However, the Ballistic Missile Defence project as such is not dead.

SPENCER: I understand they’re going to put it on ships in the Mediterranean, but there must be more than that too.

KAVAN: Yeah, it’s a complex project which would also involve installations in Romania and Poland. It’s no longer perceived as a bilateral US-East European project. It will have to be totally supported by the entire alliance, which is something that we asked, even at the time of the Bush proposal. But foreign military installations on the Czech territory? That idea is dead. There was a discussion of having a monitoring station but eventually the Czech government declined that. They thought it was too little and I think they were hoping that if a new president is elected after Obama, then a “new Bush” would propose something that would involve the Czech Republic. I hope this does not happen.

SPENCER: Do Czechs perceive it as an anti-Russian or, as it is advertised, an anti-Iran project?

KAVAN: Even the original Bush project was attributed to the threat from Iran and from North Korea. During the talks the mention of North Korea was quietly dropped. I don’t think anybody here is concerned with a potential threat from Iran. Some of our ministers said that such a project is needed to strengthen Central Europe against potential threats from Russia, but the Americans insist that this is not against Russia. You have to differentiate between the positions of the Czech government and the Czech opposition, and I belong to the Social Democratic Party, which is in opposition. We would support the project, especially if it is all-European and not just bilateral. We favor the idea voiced at the Lisbon summit—that the Russian Federation actively participate in the project. I think that significant participation by the Russians could militate against the possibility that the project could be used against Russia. We believe that any increase of Europe’s confrontation with Russia undermines our security rather than strengthens it. We would welcome the participation of Russia in the BMD project.

SPENCER: I don’t think it’s very likely, is it?

KAVAN: No, at the moment it doesn’t look likely but the talks still continue.

SPENCER: And how likely is the other condition—that it be supported by all NATO countries?

KAVAN: That’s much more likely than the involvement of Russia—at least on the basis, as President Medvedev proposed—of equality. The US at the moment offers to exchange information and coordinate certain things, but not to give Russians an equal footing, which is what President Medvedev asked for. It will take some time but eventually, especially if President Obama is reelected, it may lead to a compromise. The important thing is that the project clearly not be aimed against Russia and not lead to a new arms race.

SPENCER: How much anxiety about Iran is there in your part of the world? Here there’s talk about the prospect of Israel bombing Iran. Is that a top issue there?

KAVAN: No, I wouldn’t think so. This is a subject that people who are interested in foreign policy issues are discussing but I don’t think men and women in the street perceive it as a danger.

SPENCER: Do the people in the street consider Iran’s potential nuclear and missile capacity as a danger? If not, why do they welcome the BMD project?

KAVAN: Yes, I think that they would be unhappy if Iran gains the capability of delivering nuclear missiles. Its delivery system would now only allow them to hit Israel, not Central Europe. People are unhappy about Iranian attempts to become a nuclear country. However, they definitely would not support a proposal to bomb Iran’s nuclear installations, let alone Tehran. They oppose attempts to solve this by military means, and favor negotiating with Iran.

SPENCER: Still, it strikes me there’s no rationale for BMD if Iran’s prospects of being able to hit Europe are so weak.

KAVAN: Yes, that may be the case and I think that explanations do differ. Some analysts say it will take Iran another ten to twelve years before they develop such capability. Other analysts say it will take only two to three years. I am not an expert, so I don’t know. I would be happy if Iran would actually use their nuclear achievements for peaceful purposes, as their leaders claim to be doing. But the rationale is aimed, not only at Iran as a state, hitting some other countries. I don’t believe that they will do so because it would be suicidal. I don’t believe any government in the world is really suicidal. The response would wipe the country off the face of the earth.

On the other hand, there are dangers of non-governmental groups using dirty bombs. It is very difficult to monitor those, so if you scare people about such possibilities, then the BMD system would make sense to them. And if you combine the discussion of the BMD project with the possibility—and I stress that it’s only a possibility—of the withdrawal of the US weapons now stationed in Europe (which have no military functions whatever—only psychological or symbolic ones), then the BMD project would only underline the out-datedness of nuclear weapons here. The US is already withdrawing some troops from Germany and it makes sense that they would withdraw those weapons and have the BMD project as a kind of reassurance to the Europeans.

SPENCER: I see. Okay, now let’s turn to the question of conservative trends throughout Eastern Europe. Can you comment on those changes?

KAVAN: I think to some extent that’s a simplification. On one hand, yes, there is a growing danger throughout Central and Eastern Europe but I would say the danger applies to some Western European countries as well. The danger in the medium and long term is the emergence of extremist, right-wing nationalist, xenophobic groups. None of these groups are close to any government, maybe with the slight exception of Hungary, where they don’t form a government, though the Jobbik Party, together with a paramilitary guard, are among the top supporters of the current Hungarian government. However, in this country and elsewhere, you have some groups that I don’t like. The government should more consistently target the reasons for the emergence of these groups, which is economic crisis, unemployment, cuts in social benefits, and the treatment of minorities. One can make a long list. One should target those reasons and prevent the increasing support of such groups, but I don’t think there’s any danger that they’ll get into parliament. They won’t exceed the five percent threshold.

SPENCER: But Fidesz?

KAVAN: Yes, I mentioned Hungary as the exception. I’m very worried about the developments in Hungary. But again, the current government is not composed of the Jobbik supporters. It’s Fidesz, which is now following a very nationalist policy. Their defence of Hungarian minorities, wherever they are in the world, gave rise to an extreme nationalism and introduces policies that to me don’t sound very democratic—far greater control of the media; restrictions on personal freedoms; control of banks. They have authoritarian features which, given the history of this part of the world, we have to view with apprehension. We hope they don’t “blossom” into a fully-fledged danger. On the other hand, Hungary is in a terrible economic situation, with one of the largest external debts of any country in Europe. It’s totally dependent on money from the International Monetary Fund. Therefore I think that even the Fidesz government will not risk any open confrontation with the European Union and the IMF or violate the EU’s commitment to respect minority and democratic rights. But today they are one of the greatest problems in this region—a problem you don’t have in Poland, which is doing fairly well. In the last elections the Tusk government won. It’s a kind of a centrist liberal government. Its main opponent was a party that is more nationalist, more anti-EU, anti- Russian, anti-German.

In the Czech Republic the next elections will not take place until 2014, but according to opinion polls, it’s clear that the largest party will be the current opposition, the Social Democratic Party.

SPENCER: So you may be foreign minister again one of these days?

KAVAN: No. I’m a bit old and too controversial. But I think the foreign policy of the Social Democratic government if we win the next elections will be fairly close to my way of thinking. I hope to support it—not necessarily in the position of a foreign minister, but maybe in some other position.

SPENCER: Unfortunately, you’ve lost many of your former friends and colleagues. Jiri Dienstbier, Vaclav Havel. Here, Josef Skvorecky recently died. I hope you still find yourself in a warm, supportive network of old friends. How are your former dissident colleagues doing, other than the ones we are hearing about in obituary columns?

KAVAN: (Laughs). By the mid-nineties the dissidents were out of power everywhere. Certain individuals stayed in power, such as Vaclav Havel, but the groups—Solidarnosc in Poland or Charta 77’s main activists in this country, or the democratic opposition in Hungary—they were all out of power. Parts of the establishment and the media still criticize the dissidents. I am still in close contact with left-wing dissidents from that time. The best known is Petr Uhl, who spent nine years in prison as a left-wing Charta 77 signatory. He’s still very active today, having celebrated his seventieth birthday, which was when I saw Vaclav Havel for the last time. He came to the celebration.

SPENCER: What about Martin Palous?

KAVAN: Martin Palous is now heading the emerging library of Vaclav Havel, but I don’t think he is very active politically. He was our ambassador to the UN for a long time. But on the other hand, Jaroslav Sabata is even older. He underwent a difficult operation a few days ago, but he’s still very active.

SPENCER: Wonderful. I am so fond of him. He helped my research a lot.

KAVAN: Jaroslav is still one of my closest friends.

SPENCER: You wrote a lovely piece about Havel in The Nation.

KAVAN: Then you saw that there are certain things for which I supported Havel, and other areas where we disagreed. I am closer to people such as Jaroslav Sabata, Petr Uhl, or to Jiri Dienstbier, who unfortunately died. On the other hand, his son is also called Jiri Dienstbier and I fully supported his successful campaign to be elected senator last year. A few weeks later he was elected deputy leader of the Social Democratic Party, which I supported. The leadership of the Social Democratic Party is under pressure to name candidates for the next president of this country (because Vaclav Klaus has to finish his second term next March) so yesterday they named two people for discussion; one is a Czech-American economist, Professor Jan Svejnar, and other is Jiri Dienstbier, despite the fact that he is only 43 years old. If elected president he would be obviously the youngest president, but I would fully support his campaign.

SPENCER: He was a teenager when I knew his father. What are your plans for the future?

KAVAN: I will continue to be active in non-governmental organizations, mainly international ones. I am a member of the board of the new European Leadership Network for Multilateral Disarmament and Nonproliferation. It is uniting former prime ministers, defence ministers, foreign ministers in Europe and people preoccupied with the danger of nuclear weapons. I’m also on the Academic Council of the New Policy Forum, which is a foundation run by President Gorbachev. It targets conflict situations, trying to learn from the problems of transformation in Europe and the Arab world, trying to reduce tension in Europe, promoting peace and social justice.

I’m also one of the three spokespersons of a new NGO called the Alliance of Labor and Solidarity, which is trying to link dozens of civil rights and civic groups who oppose the current right-wing cuts and government policies. One of the groups associated with our alliance is the “No To Weapons” group, which ran the campaign against President Bush’s BMD project. I will continue to be involved in the Social Democratic Party, where I am an active member of the European Leftist Platform. We hope to assure that when we are elected in 2014, the leadership will implement policies that truly reflect left-wing Social Democratic values and not some lukewarm liberal policies.

SPENCER: Will the young Jiri Dienstbier be one of the important players in that?

KAVAN: Definitely. At the moment he is a shadow minister for justice. As a lawyer and deputy leader of the party, he obviously will play an important role in the government if we win the elections—unless next year, one year before the parliamentary elections—he is elected president of this country. I hope so, but it’s not fantastically likely because people are not used to voting for someone so young as president. Also, the general feeling in the country is against political parties and politicians. Therefore, parties that put forward non-party candidates might succeed. I would not be happy about that because most non-party candidates promote right-wing policies.

Metta Spencer is editor of Peace.

Peace Magazine Apr-Jun 2012

Peace Magazine Apr-Jun 2012, page 8. Some rights reserved.

Search for other articles by Metta Spencer here
Search for other articles by Jan Kavan here

Peace Magazine homepage